Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Protective elder

Elder (Sambucus nigra) has an enigmatic reputation in British folk tradition, in some areas it was associated with witchcraft, in others it protected the home.

Thus according to Marie Trevelyan in her Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales (1909): ‘In the past an elder planted before the door of a cow-shed or stable protected the cows and horses from witchcraft and sorcery.’  In Scotland, elder was planted near old crofts as protection from witches, similarly in Guernsey it ‘had to be planted as near as possible to the back door, the most used entrance, since it was a sacred tree and a good protection against witchcraft.’  In Ireland it was considered lucky to have an elder bush, particularly one which was self-sown, near a home.  Rather similar beliefs have been recorded from near Brentwood in Essex and Parkstone, east Dorset, where it was thought that house-holders should plant a rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and an elder ‘in order to keep witches away.’

Perhaps associated with these beliefs was the widespread practice of planting elder trees outside toilets, larders and slaughterhouses to deter flies.

Adapted from R. Vickery, A Dictionary of Plant-lore, 1995.

Addendum:  R.W. Scully in his Flora of County Kerry, Dublin, 1916, p.132, observes elder ‘appears to stand the sea winds well, and frequently forms the only shelter that the poorer cabins near the coast possess’.

Images:  main, much pruned elder tree outside house, Rock-A-Nor, Hastings, East Sussex; May 2014; inset same tree, May 2022.

Updated 20 May 2022.